Public vs Private University

Higher education expenses in the US are skyrocketing. Students are graduating more heavily indebted every year. We graduated from college in 2004, and when we were making the decision about which college to attend, we didn’t know anything about personal finance or the decades-long shadow that student debt would leave on our lives.

Mrs. PW attended a large state university, and Mr. PW went to a small private university. There was an ENORMOUS difference in cost between the two, yet both of us were eventually accepted to the same medical school and have the exact career we feel is right for us. Let’s discuss our very different decisions, and what it’s meant for our financial life.


How did you choose between private and public college?

Mrs. PW: I went to a public university for my undergraduate degree for several reasons. First, when I took the tour, it “felt right.” Second, having never been away from home before, it was close enough to visit if I got homesick, but far enough that I would learn independence. Some mentors told me I needed to learn how to let loose and party, this school was known for its party scene. Third, I had no idea what I wanted to study and a public university has more options than a private college. Today, there are three dozen different biology majors at my alma mater! It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I considered going into medicine.

The cost of education was important, but not a deciding factor. My family was able to afford my education, so I didn’t have to take out any student loans; though this didn’t deter me from applying for scholarships (but coming out empty handed).

Mr. PW: My family moved back to my home state as I was starting high school. My college selection process, in retrospect, was incredibly naïve: I went to my guidance counselor and asked, “What’s the best college in this state?”. The college with the highest SAT and ACT scores in my state was a small elite liberal arts college, so I made up my mind very early that I would go there. I didn’t even consider other schools out of state. I did consider the public universities, which are very good, but somehow that seemed like settling for second best in my 14-year-old mind.


What was tuition your freshman year?

Mrs. PW: Tuition my freshman year was around $10,000 and room and board was around $5,000. Unfortunately, how the cost of college would be covered wasn’t explicit when I was applying. If I went to Tulane instead I don’t know how much I would be responsible for covering, if any.

According to U.S. News, in 2000 (our freshman year) the average cost of public in-state tuition was just $3,609 compared to $18,613 for private school!

On a side note, the cost of tuition alone more than tripled in 17 years to $10,691 and $41,727 for public in-state and private, respectively. In a future post, we’ll discuss ways to financially prepare for your children’s education.

Mr. PW: I can’t remember what tuition was, but I do remember that the overall annual cost of attendance, including room and board and living expenses, was estimated at $33,000. I had spent most of my senior year applying for dozens of random scholarships, and actually won a handful of them, so about half that cost was covered for my freshman year. The rest, I borrowed in student loans. A lot of the scholarships I won were for one year only, so I had to borrow a lot more after freshman year.

I can’t find the exact tuition numbers for my time there 18 years ago, but I can look up the difference today in 2018 between my alma mater and the public university I was considering. In-state tuition at the public university is $12,203, and the private university I attended is $47,960. This is just tuition – before considering any room and board, fees, living expenses, and the other things that get rolled into a student loan. I mean, holy crap. The college I attended is four times as expensive as a very good research university.


Would you make the same choice today?

Mrs. PW: Yep. It was a good four years on a beautiful campus with awesome sports teams. I had great friends and enjoyed my time there. I liked being a number in a large introductory science class while having intimate conversations in my smaller humanities courses. I graduated debt-free (and my family didn’t take out loans to pay for my education either) and was accepted into medical school the first time around. By now my choice of undergrad isn’t important, but being debt free as a result of my choice is.

Mr. PW: I have to say I wouldn’t. I absolutely loved my college. It is one of the most picturesque campuses in the world, the professors are world-class and personally invested, and the small class sizes meant I had intimate attention of the sort that really allowed me to explore some complicated topics and flourish as a person. I made lifelong friends that I can’t imagine my life without. But I really think that I could have had a great experience at one of the major public universities in my home state, made similar lifelong connections, and eventually ended up with the same skills and career I have now.

I am very proud of my alma mater, but I am a little ashamed at how little thought I put into the decision to go there. At the very least, I could have considered colleges in different states. Out-of-state tuition at some world-famous public universities in neighboring states was still a fraction of the cost of my private college. Though they seem like a drop in the bucket compared to my medical school loans, I am still paying off undergraduate student loans 18 years after first borrowing them, thanks to my decision to attend one of the most expensive schools in the country.


This girl has an expensive education ahead of her if she’s going to be a vet.
What are we going to say to our daughters about this? Would we pay for private college for them?

Mrs. PW: Our girls aren’t even in kindergarten yet, so we have a long time to think about this. Ideally, they will both have enough in their 529 accounts to fund public undergraduate and graduate degrees. Starting early in high school, we will clearly communicate how their higher education will be paid for. We’ll start discussing ways to cover the difference if they think like their father, and what they can do with the remainder if they graduate with extra funds.

I would love to be able to financially support our daughters through their education so they don’t have to stress over a mortgage on their brain like us. With this said, they’re going to public school K-12.

Mr. PW: If we really are nicely financially independent by the time our girls reach college, we should be able to afford to support them through either public or private college. But I agree that guaranteeing their tuition at a public undergraduate and graduate school is the way to go. Should one (or both!) of them insist on a private school, we can work with her to find ways to make up the increased cost by working, scholarships, or even student loans (though hopefully minimizing the latter as much as possible).


How did you choose where to get your undergraduate degree? How did you, or your family, pay for your education? What would you recommend to a students looking at colleges today?

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